After long, losing road, Wizards are playoff-bound
WASHINGTON -- Sure, it was easy for the Washington Wizards to say they were going to rebuild their team the "right way," using the draft to restock the roster and doing a lot of losing before, hopefully, getting back to at least a little bit of winning.
Try living through it.
"Let me tell you, it feels like I've been here 20 years," said coach Randy Wittman, who actually arrived as an assistant in 2009. "But it makes it worth the while, too. I wouldn't wish some of the struggles that we went through on anybody, but it also makes it nicer then to see the other end of it."
No one is proclaiming that the Wizards are the NBA dynasty, but the long-suffering franchise is back in the playoffs, having booked their spot Wednesday night with a 26-point thrashing of the Boston Celtics.
"They had a losing culture here," said 34-year-old forward Al Harrington, part of Wittman's "AARP group" that joined the team this season to provide invaluable leadership and bench scoring. "But today's a new day. I think things are changing."
If so, it's long overdue.
While playoffs are routine in some NBA cities, in Washington dysfunction became the norm. Even Michael Jordan couldn't get the franchise out of the doldrums and had an ugly split with late owner Abe Pollin. Gilbert Arenas led the team to four straight playoff appearances before leaving town after a scene involving guns in the locker room.
The Wizards also haven't won more than 45 games in a season since the 1970s. They've missed the playoffs 20 of 26 seasons and have won only one postseason series in 30 years. Even if this year's record (39-36) is included, their record since their last playoff appearance is 156-313 -- losing two out of every three.
With all that losing, no wonder it took a little while to learn how to win. When they had a chance to clinch Monday night against the Charlotte Bobcats, the Wizards collapsed in the fourth quarter and blew an 11-point lead. Afterward, Harrington felt the need to tell everyone to chill out.
"I challenged them to have fun. Just come out and enjoy this," Harrington said. "We were one win away and we were acting like the world was falling apart."
The Wizards' return to the playoffs is actually a year behind schedule, according to owner Ted Leonsis' preferred timeline. He issued a playoffs-or-bust decree last season, but recanted after John Wall was diagnosed with a knee injury that kept the franchise player sidelined for several months.
This season, Leonsis reissued the decree, and it had more teeth because Wittman and team president Ernie Grunfeld are in the last year of their contracts. Grunfeld, in particular, has faced much criticism because of his spotty draft record, although he did make the right call with his two major building blocks: 2010 No. 1 overall pick Wall and 2012 No. 3 overall selection Bradley Beal.
But, for now at least, all is well.
The Wizards are in, and they'll spend the final few regular season games trying to avoid falling to seventh or eighth in the Eastern Conference so they can stay away from a first-round series against the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers.
Savoring it perhaps more than anyone will be Wall, who still has the framed photo of the Larry O'Brien Trophy in his locker. After the final whistle Wednesday night, Harrington gathered everyone at midcourt, and Wall danced for his teammates a few seconds in the middle of the circle.
"It's everything I've been waiting for," Wall said.
Wittman has been waiting a while, too. He had never been close to the playoffs in his seven previous seasons as a head coach. He took over in Washington after Flip Saunders was fired in January 2012 and received a warm thank-you hug from Wall as the clock ticked down Wednesday night.
"That's what I'm so elated for, for some of these guys who have been here a number of years," Wittman said. "They've heard me preach this day's coming for a while, and I think they thought I was crazy at one time -- and I was probably was -- but it's finally gotten here."
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Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press
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